Creating change from within the belly of the beast
So you want to green up your organization
Within any large organization, from corporations to government bodies, there is inertia. Status quo. There are also many frustrated, brilliant people who want to see change, innovation. They want to see business as a force for good, not just as a force for ‘less bad’. This blog is for those people.
Some organizations are able to innovate, turn stagnant business models into a force for forward-thinking leadership. Xerox’s pioneering remanufacturing model, where they started seeing photocopying as a service rather than a product, is one example that comes to mind. Others aren’t able to innovate and they die (let’s have a moment of silence for the hummer). But how do you know which kind of organization you work for?
From my experience working with large organizations on internal change, here’s how to tell if you stand a chance:
Is there leadership buy-in and support?
What do the top dogs think? Are they open to change? Do they appreciate green ideas? Even if they’re working within profit constraints and can’t necessarily implement brilliant resource-saving ideas, are they excited about moving in this direction? Without at least one bigwig ally, the best initiatives and ideas are more likely than not dead in the water.
Is there an obvious tie-in with your strategic direction?
If you can point to the direction your organization is looking to go and very clearly articulate where a sustainability lens will help, then you’ve got a good leg to stand on. Regulation is also a shoo-in: if you’ve got emissions reductions targets to meet, then serious brownie points to the members of staff who figure out how to do this in a way that’s best for business.
If you went looking for allies do you think you’d find them?
Are there other eco-warriors in your organization, perhaps at the next cubicle over or on the third floor in the accounting department? Real change needs support from all levels within an organization so you’ll need to find yourself a wealth of champions to have a chance at success. Find likely and unlikely allies. Of course include facilities and Environmental Health and Safety staff but also include the receptionist who’s passionate about car-sharing and the marketing person who wants to see a product packaging revolution.
Can you identify some low hanging fruit?
In order to get others on board, a few early, easy victories are massively helpful. If one switch still turns on your whole buildings’ lighting or your recycling system is a mess, you’ve got the chance to get a few easy successes under your belt & amass wider support before moving on to harder challenges.
Are you an unreasonable optimist?
A really unreasonable optimist? People say that being an entrepreneur is difficult. Not to knock those who strike out on their own, but in my opinion being an intrapraneur – someone creating change from within – can be even more difficult.
Much like an entrepreneur, you’ll often feel alone and you’re forging a new path, but as an added bonus you’ll sometimes find yourself swimming against the current of status quo and business as usual. So if the idea of being a salmon swimming upstream, fighting a fierce current the whole way, is an exciting challenge for you, I say go forth and make change from the inside! Otherwise, it’s better to focus on cubicle decor and updating your CV.
If you think you’ve got a pretty good chance of success, then it’s time to start casting your eye around for the early champions who’ll throw in their lot with you. Next step, start planning how you’ll make your case to the powers that be – it’s crucial that you think this through and find the right approach and the right moment.
This blog is the first in a series about influencing sustainability from inside large organizations. Next up – how to go about it.
The f-word: on failing forwards
Engineers Without Borders bravely kick-started a much-needed conversation when they created their first Annual Failure Report in 2008, followed by the launch of the Admitting Failure website in 2011. Since then the conversation has been opening up, propelled by some interesting initiatives like failcamp and a couple of great failure-themed Ted talks, but, at least in my humble opinion, not nearly fast enough or wide enough.
The word ‘failure’ still causes a deep, uncomfortable cringe in most of us, with the result that too many individuals and organizations are trying to bury our mistakes and missteps deep underground instead of inviting them out into the light to take a good, hard look and learn some much-needed lessons.
Why failure is a good thing
Social change is a messy process. Why in the world do any of us think we’re going to get it right the first time? Putting these unbelievable expectations on ourselves doesn’t just weigh heavily on us (contributing to stress and burnout) but it’s not helpful for the process of innovation. New ideas need to be tested, refined, tested again, refined, tested again …. you get the picture. This iterative model necessarily involves talking about what isn’t working.
Recently I read a great story about Sara Blakely (the entrepreneur who invented Spanx), shared in this Forbes article, about how Sara’s father asked her every day “what did you fail at today?” and expected an answer. The lesson here is that everyone who’s trying hard enough is also getting it wrong sometimes.
Why are we selfishly keeping our failures to ourselves?
So we need to get okay with being unsuccessful sometimes. We also need to start talking and sharing. The world needs to know about your ideas that have fallen flat – otherwise some other organization is going to try the same thing and waste their time, energy and money on something that you know full well won’t work. If they knew what you knew, they could use your failure as a starting point and have a much better chance of success.
Last summer, I was lucky enough to meet social entrepreneur and ‘conscious closure’ expert Vanessa Reid at an Art of Hosting training in England. Vanessa’s led amazing organizations like Santropol Roulant through times of change and transition, and she’s also become a bit of an accidental expert in knowing when it’s time for a project or idea to come to an end so that something else can take its place. This idea of creative destruction is really powerful.
In a workshop, Vanessa talked about the Ecocycle model, which uses the natural cycles of a forest to illustrate the phases that organizations, projects and campaigns go through. There is a part of the cycle called creative destruction, where old ideas die so that new ones can be born. Much like certain seeds that only germinate within the intense heat of forest fires and plants that only grow in ash-rich soil, some ideas and projects will never be able to flourish until others have created space. The beauty of this place of destruction and renewal is that it’s where so much useful learning happens. Failure is only disastrous if we don’t learn from it – as individuals, within our organizations, and throughout the whole systems we work within.
How to fail well
One of my favourite reads on the EWB website is Four Ideas for Failing Successfully. You should read the whole article because it’s great, but here are the core nuggets of the argument:
- In complex systems failure is often unavoidable. Set the expectation with your funders, staff, partners and other stakeholders that learning from failure is a part of the work. Say it explicitly.
- Become accountable to your beneficiaries, not your funders. This will make it easier to admit and share your failures.
- Fail fast and fail cheap. Prototyping is way less risky than rolling out a big, fat, expensive flop.
- Take responsibility your own failures. If you spend time pointing the finger to external factors, you won’t get the chance to learn what you could have done differently.
And some more great reads on failure (in case you just can’t get enough):
- Why success always starts with failure: how to recognize failure, good and bad ways to react to mistakes, and how to create safe spaces to fail
- Good fail, bad fail: what made Caterpillar and unmade Enron: why it’s important to learn from others’ mistakes
- You are certainly not your job: A fascinating take on personal failure at work and why it’s not the end of the world
So what are you waiting for? Go forth and fail! And then come back and tell us all about it.
Reading list: collaborative leadership
Here are a few great articles I’ve read recently on different models of leadership that follow the tenet ‘the responsibility of a leader is to create more leaders’, instead of thinking about a leader as someone who’s always at the front of the pack, making decisions & admitting no wrong.
- Leadership in the age of complexity: moving from leader as hero to leader as host. This 2002 interview with Margaret Wheatley is also an interesting read.
- On humility and being wrong: a great Forbes piece on finding a more authentic kind of leadership, where everyone at every level in an organization is a leader, and where total honesty is crucial
- Do you want the good news first? Thomas Friedman on how to be a great leader, you “‘have to think of yourself not as a designer but as a gardener” — seeding, nurturing, inspiring, cultivating the ideas coming from below, and then making sure people execute them’.
And a couple nice little examples of collective leadership in action:
- School to be led by teachers: A school in Maine moves to a cooperative leadership style, ditching their principal in favour of a team of teachers
- Why there are no bosses at Valve: the million dollar company with no managers. One of the more fascinating reads I’ve come across lately is their staff handbook, which they’ve recently made public.